In this regular feature, wimp and noted horror non-enthusiast Chris Kelly reports back with his first-impressions of memorable scary movies.
An American Werewolf in London is remembered largely for its transformation scene, and rightly so. The image of a man screaming and writhing in agony as his body contorts quickly and unpleasantly cements itself in one’s mind. Despite the hokey soundtrack applied to the proceedings (I groaned when I realized that every single song would have “moon” in the title), the event plays out like an overlong nightmare, offering grotesquely convincing close-ups of how truly horrible it is to become a man-hound.
Unfortunately, this small percentage of insanely watchable celluloid allows us to collectively forget that the rest of the film kind of stinks.
It’s clear pretty early on that this movie isn’t going anywhere exciting. From the moment our good-looking hero (the hunky, dull David Naughton) and his goofy sidekick (the gnomish Griffin Dunne) extract themselves from a truck full of sheep, you can tell that the comedic aspect of this horror-comedy hybrid is going to fall short. The ongoing banter between the two leads reeks of effort: everyone involved is trying to create a funny moment, and no one is succeeding.
The young travelers, who incidentally are worse planners than the trio in The Blair Witch Project, stumble upon what proves to be the most intense village in creation. All acting that happens inside the village pub is turned up to eleven. The extreme tension and charged pauses suggest that somewhere a crucial line about the off-screen sniper was edited out, leaving behind only the clenched, dire delivery of a set of characters who we didn’t realize are all about to be shot in the head. While this makes sense after the two men exit and are clearly in danger of losing their lives, it is less plausible when they are, for instance, ordering tea.
As it turns out, these people do have some cause to worry: pretty soon, a horrible beast is unexpectedly eating Griffin Dunne. The shock of his death is mixed with relief: it’s nice to think that he won’t be around to extract laughter from me the way a student dentist might extract a molar. Sadly, he will make several subsequent appearances as a corpse in limbo, getting uglier but not any funnier.
As the newly-bitten protagonist wakes in the hospital, we’re introduced to a breath of fresh air in the form of Jenny Agutter’s Nurse Alex. The sheer competence of her performance suggests that she stumbled onto the wrong set; while Naughton limply recites his lines as if he’s still at the first table read, Agutter lays down layers of nuance that I doubt anyone else in the production even noticed, let alone intended. Sadly, despite her intelligent reading of the script, her character is an idiot: she’s quick to encourage her patient to live in her apartment even though he is a total stranger who has suffered serious trauma, behaves erratically, tells her he’s in love with her after less than a month, and claims to be a werewolf. She’s the kind of girl who ought to die first in a flick like this.
We get Next, we’re given an impressive attempt at rationalizing everyone’s fairly casual reaction to David’s repeated assertions that he is a werewolf. The whole business is unconvincing, wordy, and lacking in the horror and/or comedy that would make it feel like a viable use of our viewing time.
Finally, after some more bland exposition from the locals back at the High-Intensity Pub (seriously, those people are stern and impassioned. They need backrubs.) the film delivers what we’ve all been waiting for: actual werewolfery. As mentioned previously, the metamorphosis is handled quite well. Unfortunately, David Naughton is no more interesting as a monster than he is as a man. Though several murders occur in quick succession, nothing especially scary or even gory happens. We spend all this time watching a werewolf being created, but then aren’t shown the finished product or what it’s capable of. It’s something of a let-down.
The third quarter of this movie is a blur to me. I know that Mr. Naughton frolics bare-assed through London for a while (note to Tom: more male nudity, please), and then he talks to the undead in a porno theater (an arbitrary choice of location that I accept only because it allowed for the one joke in the entire script that made me laugh). Inevitably, the moon comes out again, and the werewolf eats some people who presumably just wanted to masturbate in peace. His subsequent escape into Piccadilly Circus, while light on individual bite-induced death, causes something of a vehicular holocaust. It’s a total Monster Truck Rally. Apparently, the release of a single wild animal onto the London streets would cause untold carnage and mayhem. More hilarious still: while the patrons of the provincial bar to the North are busy trying to perfect the technique of murder by emphatic tone of voice, the city folk calmly label the unfolding twisted metal apocalypse as a “disturbance.” When we finally get to see the dog-man, the finished product isn’t nearly as exciting as the work-in-progress.
Then he gets shot, Jenny Agutter gives a better crying take that this project deserves, and the movie ends. It’s abrupt.
Bottom line: amusement and fright seem to be on opposite ends of the playing field. I neither laughed nor felt the need to cover my eyes during this movie, and it’s easy to make me do either. By trying for both, the makers of this movie ended up engaging in a tug-of-war that left them decidedly in the middle, never managing to achieve either aim. What’s left is a sketchy plot, lame dialogue, shoddy performances, and mediocre direction. Without Rick Baker’s innovative prosthetic work, this dud surely would have faded into obscurity long ago.